Monday is fried chicken. Tuesday is roast beef. Wednesday is veal patties. Thursday is spaghetti and meatballs. Friday is fresh fish.
That's the fixed menu of the Cafe St. James, a tiny, 38-year-old Italian tavern at Sixth Street and Massachusetts Avenue NW that stands as a vestige of a neighborhood long vanished. It has changed little since James and Teresa Zerega opened it in 1946, except that now it is run by their son and four grandchildren.
In the '40s and '50s, the St. James was part of the Italian residential and business community that stretched along Massachusetts Avenue between Sixth and North Capitol streets NW.
As downtown changed over the years, many of the Italian families moved away, leaving only the St. James and the Italian Holy Rosary Church at Third and F streets as landmarks of the old neighborhood.
Now the St. James, located behind heavily curtained windows in the dimly lit basement of a brick row house at 519 Massachusetts Ave. NW, is one of few businesses left in a neighborhood full of vacant buildings and parking lots.
The customers are more like a family, most of them bank employes or government workers from nearby office buildings or police officers who come in from the D.C. Superior Court five blocks away. They refer to the St. James as "the church," and they know all the family members who cook, wait table and tend bar, by their first names.
At the St. James, there are no written menus, no written checks, no credit cards, no happy hour and not a fern in sight.
Santiago (Sonny) Zerega, 58, second-generation owner and chief cook, said there is no need for a menu. "Everyone who comes here knows what we serve. Same thing every week. For a while, we served liver and onions on Tuesday, but they got tired of that, so now we do roast beef. We charge $3.50, and that hasn't changed in years. If someone new comes in and wants a menu I just send my daughter B. J., the waitress, over and she recites it for them."
Zerega's two daughters and two sons, who alternate workdays in the bar, say they can remember what every bill should be, or they simply ask the customer. For favored customers, a bar tab is allowed to run for up to two weeks. There is no happy hour because drafts are 80 cents all day.
At noon, Sonny Zerega is in the kitchen filling plates with the special of the day. If his daughter is too busy to serve the food immediately, he wanders out and serves it himself. He finds time to banter with old customers and shake hands with new ones before hurrying back to his tiny kitchen.
Zerega even allows a few customers to use his stove to heat up their own homemade sauces. On one recent Thursday, Joseph Hunter announced that he made a better spaghetti sauce than Zerega and poured a jelly jar full of anchovy and garlic paste into one of Zerega's large kitchen pots. Then he allowed the bar's owner a taste of his sauce before triumphantly carrying his own plate of spaghetti and homemade sauce to his table.
Hunter, who designs computer systems for the General Accounting Office, said he has been a fan for 14 years. "We have a regular crowd who comes here and we know what to expect. This is like a family home. St. Patrick's Day is the best. We take the day off and arrive at 9:30 and stay till closing."
In the back of the bar, at the one table that seats six, D.C. police officer Gale Bush had just arrived from court and was waiting for his friends to join him. "We fight for this table with the telephone company guys," he said. "Whoever gets here first gets it. You couldn't ask for a better place. It's a straightforward menu and you know what you'll get. It's always the same faces. We all know each other."
The name of the Cafe St. James, rather grand for an old-fashioned bar where the decorations are promotional liquor signs and the vinyl seats are carefully repaired with tape, was originally Jimmy's Tavern, named after Sonny's father, James Zerega.
Sonny Zerega said that in 1968, a friend took him to a nightclub for an evening out. "Well, he got me up on the stage and got me to dance and then about 15 or 20 girls came over to talk to me. I tell them that I own a bar and they say where is it. Well, I tell them its near Fifth and Mass., and they say that's an awful neighborhood. Then I tell them the name and they were not impressed. My friend says to me, 'You've got to change the name.' So he comes up with the 'Cafe St. James.' But the real problem was convincing my mother to change the name. I said to her, 'We're all Catholics. And there are a lot of Jameses in the family and they are all saints.' She went for it."
Teresa Zerega, 78, still lives above the bar in an apartment decorated with photographs of her late husband and pictures of her home town in Italy. Every day she helps prepare the main lunch.
Zerega's son, James Zerega, 28, a D.C. police officer, lives on the top floor. Last winter, while patrolling in the neighborhood where he lives, Zerega was the first officer to arrive at the scene of one of Washington's worst residential fires, at 1111 Sixth St. NW, one and one-half blocks from the St. James. He is credited with rescuing three adults and two children from the burning building.
James' brother John, 33 and the night bartender, said the closing hour is set by the crowd. "We never know how many people will be here."
One recent evening, John Zerega presided over the bar while four men played pinochle at the back table and a couple danced to a song on the radio. Eight customers sat at or leaned against the bar. The conversation was easy and friendly.
Kathy McArthur alternated between sitting at the bar talking with friends and running behind the bar to help John Zerega when he got busy. "This place is my home. You get to know everybody, and when you leave, you are in a good mood. I think of Sonny as my father. I spent my last nine birthdays here and I plan to be here for the next one on March 8."
Sonny Zerega said he has no intention of depriving McArthur of her birthday at the St. James.
"Somebody is always asking to buy the place," said Sonny Zerega. "There are new office buildings all around. But we are not selling. We own this place outright. For a lot of years, we were just holding on. My parents and my wife, Barbara, worked all the time. This place means that my family has a job to come to. I still come in on Saturdays when the place is closed, just to clean up. I know that [if] I were to leave here, I would die."